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52 Minutes With Ray Kelly

Taking in the vantage from central command with New York’s longest-serving police commissioner.

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It’s 4 p.m. on the fourth-to-last Wednesday of Ray Kelly’s tenure as New York’s police commissioner—a job he’s held twice now, for a total of thirteen and a half years, longer than anyone else. With less than a month left, Kelly is stoic as always, one hand on his BlackBerry and the other on a paper cup of coffee. His voice is steady and soft, an eye half-squinting as he talks. “You do the job until you don’t do it anymore,” he says, “and I’m comfortable with that. I don’t need a glide path downward.”

He’s sitting at the far end of a long, shiny black conference table in One Police Plaza’s executive command center—a dimly lit room decorated in early Jerry Bruckheimer, lined on all four walls by computer screens and real-time camera feeds. The camera feeds are the jewel of the setup—a Domain Awareness System, he says, “written jointly by Microsoft engineers and NYPD analysts.” At any moment, the people in this room can see what’s happening in 48 different locations while also watching Aljazeera and CNN and Fox and MSNBC and NY1 and the Weather Channel and monitoring 911 responses in progress and staffing changes through the department and ­precinct-by-precinct crime and quality-of-life statistics. Two days earlier, Kelly says, Bill de Blasio was sitting where I’m sitting now, next to Kelly at a counterterrorism briefing with Kelly’s ex-CIA deputy intelligence commissioner, David Cohen, and others. “We went through a lot of the detail of what’s going on,” Kelly says. “It was a good meeting. What we do here is complex, and I wanted him to see that.”

The room’s all but empty now. During a quiet hour set aside between meetings, it’s impossible for Kelly not to indulge in a little wistful legacy-protecting—especially when his flamboyant successor, William Bratton, will be taking control of the department. We’re speaking the day before Bratton will be formally named. “He is certainly qualified,” Kelly says, though he takes care to say the same about the two others on the short list from his department, Philip Banks and Rafael Pineiro. Bratton succeeded Kelly once before, in 1994, after Kelly’s initial year-and-a-half stint as commissioner under David Dinkins. The two cops couldn’t be more different: Kelly is cool and diffident, more temperamentally suited to wielding power than broadcasting it; ­Bratton, meanwhile, lives in public like a politician (which sometimes led to clashes with his former boss, Rudy Giuliani).

But their legacies are already intertwined—perhaps uncomfortably so for Kelly. Many people describe Kelly’s tenure as an extension of the statistical approach to law enforcement that Bratton famously introduced, though Kelly is not one of those people. “No,” he says, chuckling and shaking his head slightly, then stopping himself before taking the bait. “I’ll let other people be the judge of that.”

Bratton and the mayor-elect are expect­-ed to make changes to the department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which is said to unfairly target minorities. Bratton historically supported the policy, but more recently, in job-lobbying mode, he’s compared it to “chemotherapy,” something that has to be done carefully, precisely, or else it hurts.

Once upon a time, it was Kelly who vowed to do stop-and-frisk right: “It’s all in how they’re handled,” he told this magazine in 2002, after being appointed by Mike Bloomberg. Back then, in the wake of the Giuliani years, relations between police and minorities were strained, 9/11 left the city exposed and anxious, and the crime rate seemed ready to spring back up, which makes what Kelly accomplished seem all but impossible: The crime rate is lower than ever, even with staff cuts; the NYPD has a counterterrorism and intelligence apparatus that rivals that of the CIA; and Kelly has actively recruited minority officers, who now make up the majority of the department. Still, there are shadows: The rank and file grouse about Kelly, his counter­terrorism program is accused of targeting Muslims, and the stop-and-frisk issue became major campaign fodder, perhaps forever tainting Kelly’s legacy.

As the command-center screens flicker silently, Kelly is by turns defensive and conciliatory about stop and frisk. “It is an essential element of policing. This is what you pay police officers to do—to investigate suspicious conduct. To approach people if you see them acting suspiciously, and at the very least ask them questions. Now, the officers have the right to protect themselves. If they fear for their own safety, they can do a limited pat-down. And it’s important to distinguish between pat-down and search. So I think we could have done a more effective job of getting out the nuances. Even the term itself—stop and frisk—is pejorative. I think the complexity and different aspects of it were never, for a variety of reasons, able to make it into the public discourse.”

He stops short of apologizing completely. “The media may have one slant on what we do here,” he says. “But if you look at the polls, the Police Department polls are significantly high in this administration.”

His message to his successor? “To have faith in the cops,” he says. “When all is said and done, they do a great job. We’re down 6,000 officers here, and yet they have answered the call. I’m impressed every day with the work that they do. Which never makes the media.”

We leave the command center and head down the hall to the commissioner’s office, a square-shaped room with a large desk used by Teddy Roosevelt when he had the job. His glass-paneled bookcase is half-empty. “I’m starting to clean this out,” he says. He says he won’t work in government again. Is it strange to think about the future, knowing he’ll no longer be commissioner? “I must say, I’m thinking two and three months out, but it’s not about the job.” He chuckles. “I mean, I’m going to remain active and employed, and I can’t go into much more because lawyers have advised me not to talk about it, conflict of interest, that sort of thing. But this has been a great job. I couldn’t stay, anyway, I understand that. But people had told me, ‘Well, you’ll know when it’s time to go.’ Well, it’s time to go.”

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